Many claim Christianity—but what is a Christian? Does just believing in Jesus make you one—or is there more to it? What are the marks of a true Christian?
Christianity is the world’s largest religion, with over 2 billion people identifying themselves as Christians. But does just identifying yourself as a “Christian” make you one? Is a Christian simply someone who professes a belief in Jesus Christ?
Does membership in a Christian church make you a Christian? Does someone become a Christian by birth? Do we become Christians by having a religious experience and accepting Jesus as Savior? Does just being baptized—either as an infant or an adult—make you a Christian?
There are many different ideas about what it means to be a Christian. What is the biblical definition of a real Christian? What are the marks of a true Christian according to the Bible?
Is the word Christian in the Bible?
The Greek word translated Christian is Christianos, and it appears three times in the New King James Version of the Bible:
- “And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch” (Acts 11:26, emphasis added throughout).
- “Then Agrippa said to Paul, ‘You almost persuade me to become a Christian’” (Acts 26:28).
- “Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in this matter” (1 Peter 4:16).
What does the word Christian mean?
It simply means “a follower of Christ.”
A real Christian should demonstrate his or her belief by living the way Christ lived—doing what Christ did and avoiding what Christ avoided. Christians will follow Him and work at patterning their lives after His life. That’s one of the primary reasons the New Testament contains four different accounts of His life, or Gospels. These four Gospels describe Jesus’ life, day in and day out. They show us that He obeyed the commandments of God and submitted to the Father’s will. Christians must study Jesus’ life and example and must pattern their lives after His.
The inspired writers of the New Testament reinforced the truth that the definition of a Christian is a person who sincerely strives to follow Jesus Christ’s example:
- “Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1).
- “Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us” (Ephesians 5:1-2).
- “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).
- “For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps” (1 Peter 2:21).
To learn more about following the example of Christ, read “Following in His Footsteps.”
Other names for Christians in the Bible
While the Greek word for Christian is only noted three times in the Bible, many other names are used to identify followers of Christ in the New Testament. We can learn much about real Christianity by studying these other terms for Christians:
- “Disciples” (Acts 1:15; 6:1-2; 18:23). A disciple is simply a student, or pupil, who learns from and imitates the example of his or her teacher—in this case, the Teacher, Jesus Christ.
- Those “of the Way” (Acts 9:2; see also Acts 19:9, 23; 24:22). This emphasizes that Christianity is a way of living, not just something we call ourselves.
- “Believers” (Acts 5:14; 1 Timothy 4:12). A follower of Christ must believe in God and have the same biblical beliefs the early New Testament Church had.
- “True worshipers” (John 4:23). Followers of Christ will worship God in truth (verse 24)—in the way He instructs them to worship.
- “Saints” (Acts 9:32; Romans 1:7; 12:13). The word translated saints means people who are holy (set apart for a special purpose by God).
- “The called” (Romans 1:6; Romans 8:28). Followers of Christ are called, or selected, individually by God the Father Himself (John 6:44).
- “Brethren” (Acts 9:30; 10:23; 11:1; Romans 12:1). This word simply means “a brother” and emphasizes that Christians are part of a spiritual family, the Church.
- “People of God” (Hebrews 11:25; 1 Peter 2:10). Followers of Christ belong to God and bear His name.
Marks of a true Christian
There is a lot more to being a Christian than first meets the eye. As we discovered above, being a Christian goes far beyond calling oneself “Christian” or having an emotional experience of “giving your heart to the Lord.”
What are some other marks of a true Christian? Here are four:
A person must repent of his or her sins and seek baptism to be a true Christian.
After Peter’s powerful sermon on the Day of Pentecost in Acts 2, people who believed and were convicted of his message asked what they should do (verse 37). Peter’s response was, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
Later in the New Testament, Paul wrote about the vital importance and symbolism of baptism: “Therefore we were buried with him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4).
As God calls people and opens their eyes to the truth, they begin to make decisions to obey Him and seek to do the right things in their lives—they begin to live a life as a Christian. As they progress in their understanding, they come to see the need for repentance and baptism. (A young adult or prospective member may live years following Jesus Christ until spiritually mature to make such an important decision.)
A person must eventually have the Holy Spirit in him or her to be a true Christian.
After a person is raised from the water of baptism, the Bible describes another important part of the ceremony that must occur for someone to be a Christian. This is called the laying on of hands. This is so important that it’s listed as one of the foundational doctrines of the Church of God (Hebrews 6:2). God uses the laying on of hands to give a newly baptized person the gift of His Holy Spirit (Acts 8:18). This means a minister lays his hands on the individual and prays to God, asking Him to give this person His Holy Spirit.
Why is receiving the Holy Spirit so important for one to be a Christian?
Paul tells us, “You are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ he is not His. And if Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin, but the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Romans 8:9-10). A Christian is one who has received the Holy Spirit from God. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ actually lives in the Christian.
A few verses later he reinforces this truth: “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (verse 14).
So a person truly becomes a Christian when he or she receives God’s Spirit. The Holy Spirit then imbues the person with God’s power to transform his or her life and more fully understand God’s Word (Romans 12:2; 1 Corinthians 2:10). Plus, the Holy Spirit is “the guarantee of our inheritance until the redemption of the purchased possession, to the praise of His glory” (Ephesians 1:14).
A person must change how he or she lives to be a true Christian.
The apostle Paul tells us that as disciples of Jesus Christ we must change. “If indeed you have heard Him and have been taught by Him, as the truth is in Jesus: that you put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:21-24).
This means that, as a result of following Christ and changing to become like Him, we are going to think and live differently from the way we did before. This change is a lifelong process—one of becoming more like Jesus Christ.This means that, as a result of following Christ and changing to become like Him, we are going to think and live differently from the way we did before. This change is a lifelong process—one of becoming more like Jesus Christ.
In his instructions to the Christians at Rome, Paul adds some more details to this process. Romans 13:14 informs us that as followers of Jesus Christ (Christians), we should “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts.” This shows once again that being a true Christian is a way of life, not just an emotional event. A true Christian is committed to fully surrendering his or her life and will to God the Father and Jesus Christ.
To learn more about the change required to be a true Christian, read “Putting to Death the Old Man: What Does That Mean?”
A person must strive to keep God’s 10 Commandments to be a Christian.
Another important mark of a true Christian is endeavoring to obey and practice the 10 Commandments. Jesus Christ plainly taught, “If you want to enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:17).
The apostle John wrote clearly about how important it is for a Christian to obey God’s commandments. He wrote: “Now by this we know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says, ‘I know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:3-4). If we don’t strive to obey God’s commandments, we are not Christians.
Later in his epistle, he also wrote: “Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us” (1 John 3:24). The apostle Paul wrote that “keeping the commandments of God is what matters” (1 Corinthians 7:19). So an important mark of a true Christian is obedience to God’s 10 Commandments, including the Fourth Commandment to keep the seventh-day Sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11).
Of course, the 10 Commandments aren’t the only laws a Christian lives by. A true Christian will also live “by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). A true Christian will study the Bible and seek to apply its teachings to his or her life.
To learn more about the 10 Commandments and how they can change your life, download our free booklet God’s 10 Commandments: Still Relevant Today.
What is a Christian?
Being a Christian entails more than just “believing in Jesus” or “accepting Jesus in one’s heart.” There is no doubt that having faith and belief in Jesus Christ is essential, but it is only the starting point of true Christianity. A Christian is someone who is an active follower and imitator of Jesus, who has surrendered his or her life, has been baptized and has received the Holy Spirit. He or she is working to “put on Jesus Christ,” to walk and conduct his or her life as Jesus did when He was on the earth.
A Christian is working to overcome sins and is busy working at becoming more like Jesus Christ, and trying to become “perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matthew 5:48). It is a lifelong effort, not merely a one-time emotional decision or experience. And it is a commitment that has eternal rewards—to inherit the Kingdom of God with our elder Brother Jesus Christ forever!
To learn more about how to become a true Christian, download our booklet Change Your Life!